1 America is not Hollywood
So you think you know America? Maybe the glossy bits. Maybe the slick, made-for-TVAmerica. Maybe even the backward Hazzard County Hicksvilleor the Cowboys-and-Indians deserts too. That’s just a tiny part of it. Route 66 is both the world’s longest tourist attraction and America’s least touristy attraction at the same time. Most of the small towns along the route are working, farming hamlets that died when the freeways bypassed 66 in the late 1970s. Most of the America that you’ll see on the tour is poor. The difference between the haves and have-nots here is enormous.

2 It’s better than that
Because once the expectation of seeing film stars on every corner has gone, you settle in to enjoy the real USA. It’s the size, the space and the scale that makes this place special. Blazing sunshine and baby blue skies, seen from the saddle of a big, black Harley are so much more real than viewed from the window of a rental car.

Mile after mile, hour after hour of eye-popping scenery while your thoughts relax and brain muses over the stuff it filed away months ago and never gets time to consider. A relaxing holiday at 85mph. Feel your mind unwind.

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And then there are the people. Good ones, bad ones, funny ones, mad ones and a few too many rude ones (but thankfully they all work at the airport so you’ll be fine on day two). The best one was Mr Sam, an eighty-something-year-old cowboy in Arcadia, Oklahoma. He talked and we stood mesmerised – smiling, but with tears in our eyes as he told of the famines of the Thirties and the dust bowl migration of millions of people on Route 66. That was the moment when it clicked. Route 66 is not just a road like the A66 (and that’s a hell of a road), it’s a living, rolling chunk of American history, a small part of the nation’s story that, for once, doesn’t revolve around greed, guns or gung-ho wars that no-one ever wins.

3 Harleys are cool
Even when they get hot. The bikes we rode varied from Road Kings to fully loaded Electra Glides. All heavy, but not slow. We were going as fast on those things as we would have been on anything else and they coped with it all. Big old-school air-cooled motors, sitting in traffic in 115º desert heat without complaining. They always started, always fuelled properly, whatever the weather, handled the twistiest and bumpiest roads we could throw at them and (apart from a knackered wheel bearing on one bike) never broke down either.

4 We were hot…
Like true Brits, most of us took too much kit. And I was the worst. Full leathers, full-face helmet, all-season boots. By day two I was in T-shirt and jeans at 80mph. My Harley became a mobile tanning salon and I was still too hot. You can pontificate all you like about safety and gravel rash, but faced with that heat you’ll be half naked too.

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5 …but liberated too
Thing is, that after all those years of always wearing waterproofs in case the weather turns, always wearing leather and armour in case, well, you know. Always planning every ride like an extra protective new mother, it was such a huge part of the ‘once-in-a lifetime’ experience to get up every day knowing it was going to be hot enough to not worry and to trust my riding and all those years experience and hundreds of thousands of miles on a bike to kee me safe.

6 ‘I want to live in Harlow’
Not really, obviously. But the biggest reason to do something like this on a guided tour is the people you meet. An experience shared with 15 or so likeminded (or not) new best friends. No time to be shy, just get yer ya-yas out and get stuck in. The stars of our show were seven loud and lairy Essex geezers whose ages ranged from 24 to 60-something. Family and friends on a good time holiday of a lifetime. 5 6 A proper family–made me jealous. But it’s the variety that makes it. We also had a couple of couples from out Grimsby way, a 69-year-old bike dealer from Newcastle, ’Bradford John’, celebrating his 40th in style and a couple of Aussie old timers, Phil and Broc, who’ve been mates for 40 years. Plus tour guides Gary and Gladys who quietly got us 2400 miles across some large chunks of HicksvilleAmerica and the Mojabe desert.

7 Holiday Inns are actually wonderful places
Most days we spent 10 hours on the road. Punctuated by regular stops for fuel, food and a succession of Route 66 museums. Average daily distance was a little over 200 miles and most of our hotels were Holiday Inn/Best Western type places. Cheap, but clean, dependable and perfect for a travelling circus of wide-eyed Brits. Many of them felt like traditional American motels – you parked the bike outside the room – without the cockroaches, gun crime and drugs deals going on in the room next door. Some supplied a simple breakfast for free, others charged a little too much for a spread that’ll flatten a hungry American. $10 for all-you-can eat would be reasonable if you could eat a large amount for breakfast, if you see what I mean, but most of us couldn’t.

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8 The portion size legend
Everything you hear about American restaurants is true. And in the Deep South, in Oklahoma and Texas, it’s a double-sized dose of colonic devastation. There are plenty of ‘allyou- can-eat’ places, but even the regular restaurants give you more than you can possibly manage. Don’t leave your kids near the kitchen or they’ll deep fry ‘em. There are healthy options – you can have your burger without the deep fried bun, but until New Mexico, you’ll struggle to find anything vegetarian that isn’t salad or pasta. The Indian restaurant in Santa Fe is like an oasis for veggies in a desert of deep fried leather.

9 Route 66 is so much more than a road
I might have said this earlier, but it bears repeating. I went on this trip knowing nothing about Route 66 and came away with a fascination for the people who made it and the part it played in American history. At 2400 miles it’s like riding from London to Istanbul and still having another 500 miles to go when you arrived. Think about the differences in cultures on that journey and you can start to understand howmuch you’ll see in 13 days on Route 66. Try and imagine the sense of achievement and the emotion as you roll onto SantaMonicapier with your newfound mates. Once in a lifetime doesn’t even begin to describe it.

10 You will really appreciate Britain
America is different, but not better. OK, the price of fuel (around 40p a litre) is quite appealing and the cars, skies, food (for the meat eaters) and friendliness of most people are pretty cool too. But it always feels slightly impersonal. There’s no soul, no character, not much that doesn’t feel conglomerate and no real sense of history. Yet. America has discovered nostalgia late. About the same time that it stopped leading the world in high tech and smart invention. Maybe that’s the historical pattern – why would you look back to the good old days when things are still going well?

Route 66 is fascinating because it’s living nostalgia and a few towns on the route have realised this and are working hard to get Americans back on their road. Seligram, Arizona was the first and is still the best example of this. Inspired by a local barber, Angel Delgadillo, the town reinvented itself when the freeway took its traffic. Today it thrives and others are following its lead.

11 There are no words to describe the Grand Canyon
So I won’t even try. No pictures can start to do it justice either. Everything you can imagine about this spectacular place falls by the wayside when you actually see it. And the road that runs around it is worth the trip alone. Smooth, twisty, rollercoaster Tarmac for 65 miles. The standout highlight of a standout trip. Ridden for a day, remembered for a lifetime.

12 American drivers are polite and considerate…
Out in the sticks, it’s embarrassing how much better they are than us. But when you’re riding at 80mph in T-shirt and jeans, believe me, you’ll be thankful. American traffic laws are strictly enforced and for such a big place there are an awful lot of cop cars. So people respect the lawand drive smartly. Only the youngest, dopiest (and most doped) cause problems.

13 …except in the cities
Once in the cities things change though. Multi-lane high-speed freeways with overtaking allowed either side mean you really need your wits on full, err, wit-alert to stay safe. LosAngeles is like a five-lane versionof the M25 at 90mph. Check both mirrors constantly, and always have an escape route. Filtering (or splitting as it’s known there) is illegal inmany states.

14 The ocean really smells like home
The last day. Two hours battling through LA traffic. Life in your hands, heart in your mouth, clichés in every sentence, Born To Be Wild on the radio. Hollywood sign in the distance, maniacal cars switching across five lanes of freeway and an orange haze of smog over the entirety of the city. And then, that final crest and a blast of cool air. Fresh air. Hello Pacific, hello Santa Monica, we made it. The emotions are strong, the handshakes and backslaps are genuine and heartfelt. There’s relief, pride and sadness because now we have to go home. To Peterborough. Can you imagine how depressing that is?

15 Anyone can do this
No, really. The only requirement is a large chunk of cash. The riders in our party hadvastlydiffering experience on a bike – some had been riding for 40 years, others for less than two. Some rode 30,000 miles a year, for others this was farther than they’d ridden in three years. The skill of our guides made a massive difference. Always watching, always looking out for us, always ready to help. But for most of us the achievement came from within. It’s more about iron-butt than riding talent. Most of the road is quiet and safe – you’d have to be an unlucky idiot to get hurt here.

16 The wildlife is wild
It was when Joe got hit by a flying scorpion that we realised America was different. It was dead, thankfully, squashed and then thrown by the rear wheel of the bike in front. The rattlesnake warning signs started in Texas, the tarantulas were spotted in NewMexico, all manner of scorpions in Arizona, warning signs again for mountain lions in the Grand Canyon and black widows in California. We came, we saw, we all survived. Scary? No. I’m still frightened of wasps, but I found it fascinating and exciting.

17 Not all American roads are straight
Plenty of Missouri was gentle twists and turns, but the best nine miles was the Oatman highway in Arizona. Like an alpine pass with 113º heat. Sheer drops, the tightest turns and so many of ‘emyou give up counting after the first 15 (in less thanamile). Back in the 20s, travellers used to pay locals to drive their cars on this road. We’re on 300kg Harleys and loving it – mucking about at silly speeds – playing racers on cruisers. Brilliant.

18 The memories just keep getting better
There’s too much to take in while it’s happening. But once back in England things start to make sense. This memory links with that one and joins the one you chuckled at yesterday. The whole story comes together. This isn’t just a holiday, it’s a significant event in your life. And even now, five weeks after landing I’m still finding new pieces, new thoughts, new insight

What is Route 66?
Known as The Mother Road or The Mainstreet of America, Route 66 runs (or should we say ran because, officially it was declassified in the mid 1980s) from Chicago to Los Angeles and was built by combining dozens of minor roads in the early part of the last century. Much of the route follows the tracks of the early American pioneers as they headed west. But the legend of Route 66 was made in the Great Depression and dustbowl famines of the early 1930s. Millions of migrants fled west on the route, looking for adventure and whatever came their way (sorry, I know) – a tsunami of people that summed up the American dream. Route 66’s heyday was the 50s and 60s. A glamorous, almost glitzy parade of motels, diners and art deco gas stations that kept America moving. Every small town cliché is to be found here. Unfortunately, most of them are in decay. It died in the 1980s as the freeways bypassed old-town America. Towns became ghost towns almost overnight, but in the last few years that has started to change. America has discovered nostalgia and, unsurprisingly, for a country in love with the car, it’s a road at the forefront of this rose-tinted movement. Route 66 is a living monument to old time America. But more than that, it represents an alternative to the corporate, an alternative to the ‘faster, faster’ society, an opportunity to travel at your own pace and appreciate the landscape you travel through as well as the destination. Route 66 is back.

How we did it
Our tour was organised through HC Travel using California Sunriders as the tour guides in America. It’s not cheap. The 15- day trip is £3795, which includes bike hire, bike insurance and hotels, but not flights, food, health insurance (with cover for motorcycle accidents) or fuel. Flights and health insurance take it to around £4500 and you’ll need at least £1000 for food, fuel, beer and a suitcase full of Route 66 T-shirts and nicknacks. Compared to two weeks in Benidorm, that’s a lot of money. Compared to a crap cruise it’s very good value. For a genuine once in a lifetime experience, it’s a bargain.

 

Tony Carter

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